The Politics    Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Crood messaging

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaking during Question Time. Image via ABC News

Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaking during Question Time. Image via ABC News

Scott Morrison is presenting a simplistic view of the “national plan”

Debate over the national plan and its accompanying modelling has raged on, while the emergence of alternative modelling has granted people more power to pick and choose from whichever data they like. After the Doherty Institute last night backed the PM’s claim that reopening could still occur even with tens or hundreds of daily cases (though it noted that “vigilant public health interventions” would be needed at higher caseloads), Scott Morrison continued his full-throated anti-lockdown campaign with a weird and unrelatable reference to the 2013 movie The Croods, clearing up where yesterday’s cave references came from. “Now it’s like that movie The Croods,” Morrison told Today. “Some wanted to stay in the cave and the young girl wanted to deal with the challenges of living in a different world … We can’t stay in the cave.” But more alarming modelling caused a stir this morning, as ANU data predicted that ending restrictions at an adult vaccination rate of 80 per cent could lead to 25,000 deaths, with the co-authors calling for a goal of 90 per cent, including children. As the ABC’s Casey Briggs was quick to point out, the ANU modelling was not reflective of the reality, as case numbers were based on Australia dropping all restrictions, which is certainly not part of the current transition plan. But what measures are part of the plan? Morrison is eager to turn this into an electoral battle between Lockdown Labor and the freedom-loving Coalition, painting the ALP’s refusal to commit to no more lockdowns as an obsession with permanent “COVID-zero”. But is the PM presenting an overly simplistic view of life on the other side? And does Labor need to do a better job of communicating what it actually thinks should occur here, lest the government get away with it?

Throughout the day, the prime minister continued to imply that Labor was abandoning the “national plan” (which was sometimes “my plan”, sometimes “our plan”), insisting it had been agreed upon by national cabinet. On ABC’s AM, Health Minister Greg Hunt told Sabra Lane that “we cannot live in lockdown forever” (not something anyone is suggesting), while NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, in her press conference, continued to trumpet the need for all states to learn to live with COVID, and teased the long-promised “freedoms” after 6 million vaccination doses were administered. Question Time was again focused on the national plan, with Morrison spruiking the freedoms to come after reaching the 70 and 80 per cent targets, talking up the ability for Australians to “see past the lockdowns”, and attempting to portray the Opposition as “standing in the way of the plan”. (Of course, Labor was said to be undermining the vaccine rollout every time it asked a question about the terribly delayed program.)

Labor attempted to wedge Morrison on his refusal to back its $300 cash-for-jab proposal, noting that it would probably help him reach his revered reopening targets sooner, after a new study showed the $300 incentive combined with social restrictions would reduce hesitancy by 56 per cent. Morrison again pretended this was disrespectful to Australians and a wasteful cash splash, claiming it was “the plan” that was motivating people to come forward, so that – you guessed it – they would “not have to live with lockdowns”. Shadow health minister Mark Butler’s questioning of the decision to leave 12–15-year olds out of the reopening targets – something that has left many parents and experts concerned – prompted a subtle accusation from Hunt that Butler was advocating for something not supported by medical advice, while noting that further advice from ATAGI was hopefully coming soon.

The Morrison government has taken pains to portray Labor as abandoning the Doherty Institute plan, as being the ones single-handedly holding the country back from ending lockdowns. But what was actually agreed to, when the four-phase reopening plan was accepted? The Doherty Institute’s modelling is ultimately just that: modelling, predicting what level of cases can be expected at differing vaccination rates and with differing measures in place, assuming that the system of test, trace, isolate, and quarantine (TTIQ) can keep up. But did the state and federal leaders, who have always had wildly different levels of risk tolerance, ever agree on what kind of death toll (or even just caseload) would be acceptable? The Doherty Institute modelling tracks different scenarios and outcomes, the key comparison at the moment being 1457 deaths over six months with “partial public health measures”, or 13 deaths in the same period with “optimal public health measures”. But which one are we aiming for? Hunt was quick to note the 13 when pushed on the 1457 figure on AM this morning. But Morrison is leaving Australians with the impression that restrictions will be all but gone, telling Sunrise that there would be “common sense”, “baseline sort of level” restrictions, such as “washing your hands” and “maintaining good hygiene”. Is he setting Australians up for disappointment?

It’s not clear whether national cabinet ever really had a “national plan” – or even a consensus on what kind of death toll would be acceptable after we reach the 80 per cent vaccinated threshold. (In fact, as Rick Morton reported at the time, the later phases weren’t even modelled when the plan was released, with no end point for lockdowns included.) But Morrison is claiming that Labor is walking away from one anyway, implying that any calls for a reconsideration of the modelling represent a betrayal of the Australian people. The short-sighted PM has decided to rest his political fortunes on a triumphant end to lockdowns, no matter that they might still be needed later. The risk for Labor, in its push to reserve the right to enact restrictions, is that Morrison’s crude portrayal of them as lockdown laggards sticks.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

“As a human rights advocate, this is a violation of those people’s dignity and rights. I am ashamed that they were so disrespected by my government.”

Kay Danes, part of a team of advocates trying to coordinate the rescue of former Australian embassy guards in Kabul, slams DFAT, after guards and their families were left standing in sewage outside the airport for hours, only to be told they did not have the necessary papers.

“With respect, I did answer that question.”

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian refuses to be drawn on whether the new “freedoms” for vaccinated people – to be announced on Thursday or Friday – will apply to those in the state’s 12 LGAs of concern.

The document predicting COVID-19 hospitalisations
As COVID-19 case numbers continue to reach record highs in NSW, so too do hospitalisations and intensive care admissions. Now, a leaked document from the national cabinet has revealed that the state’s hospitals could soon reach a tipping point.

The total cost of federal lockdown disaster payments, with $2.5 billion of that going to NSW, where one in 10 people have received assistance.

“Labor has agreed that it will oppose a disallowance motion to prevent $50m of grant funding in the Beetaloo basin, including for the gas industry.”

The Labor caucus has decided to not to back the Greens’ disallowance motion preventing Beetaloo sub-basin funding, despite the urging of environmental groups. It also decided to wave through most of the Coalition’s electoral changes, although it will object to one bill attempting to lower the disclosure threshold for political campaigners.

The list

“It’s surely a cliché to ask what Goya would turn his razor-sharp mind to today, but the question is unavoidable. Seen in light of other winter blockbusters that the NGV has staged over the years – or even just in light of the concurrent French Impressionism from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston – one understands Goya’s enduring power. Many viewers will be drawn by his storied name and perhaps expect an afternoon of pleasant diversion, but Goya is a hard exhibition: not to understand (his images are nothing if not direct), but in its uncompromising nature. As any exhibition of his work should be, the experience of looking at his images in volume is draining. And yet it also carries an invigorating charge of intense clarity.”

“Let’s establish a value judgement: 28 is a very good book – tender, honest and engaging. It’s highly perceptive about many things – binge drinking, youthful uncertainty, artistic desire, the strange dynamics of masculinity – but if I was to praise it in one sentence, intending no insult to its author, it would be this: it’s a great book about being a loser. I intend to qualify that statement.”

“Australian law enforcement agencies are teaching their officers to identify a medical condition known as ‘excited delirium’ – despite the fact many medical experts say it may not exist. The controversial term has been promoted by a small group of medical researchers and received notoriety during the murder trial of George Floyd in the United States. Its claimed symptoms are manifold and have been used to defend the use of force by police as well as the sudden death of people in custody.” 

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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